Category Archives: Zombies

Dead of Night 1974

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Having recently lost a member of my family Dead of Night‘s bitter anger at death, and the effect it has on those around its victims, has a strong ring of authenticity to it. However the film must have felt even rawer at its time of release. America was fighting itself as much as it was fighting across the sees in Vietnam, and young sons were paying for this folly with their lives.

The Brooks family are sitting around their kitchen table talking about their son and brother Andy, who is in ‘Nam, when they receive the dreaded knock at the door. It is the letter telling them that Andy died in action. The family’s grief is palpable, as the spare chair at the table they have been sitting around becomes uncompromisingly empty. Some time later the daughter wakes up to the noise of someone in the house. Her, her mother and father go down only to discover Andy has not died and is back home for good. Of course there is something very, very wrong with Andy…

This must have been a painful film to watch back in 1974. Usually when a film is made about a war it is made several years after the fact. This gives some distance to the proceedings and audiences can absorb what the film maker has to offer without feeling like it is too real. Seeing as the Vietnam war was still going on when Dead of Night was released it must have been a shocker. Andy, upon his return, is a distant, mostly silent figure, staring off into the distance as he rocks back and forth on his rocking chair. This must have been like any number of returning veterans – suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or worse. However Andy is also a zombie who tries to keep himself alive by murdering everyone around him and injecting their blood into his withering veins. Although he doesn’t say much of anything he does claim his actions are a reaction to “all those who stayed at home” whilst he fought for them. He paid in blood for them, now he wants it back. The injection scene isn’t like some modern vampire though but like a smack addicted getting his fix, again like so many veterans of the era.

Dead of Night is an uncompromisingly bleak portrayal of the effects war can have on people, all wrapped up as a zombie movie. Andy is bitter and vengeful towards his fellow Americans even as he claims to be now superior to them as he cannot die. Meanwhile his family is ruined by him. They are first devastated when they think he is dead and then unable to accept the horrible truth when they realise he is “alive”, His father lies to the police in order to protect him, his sister, Cathy, is driven mad be the reality of what he is and his mother (Lynn Carlin) is worst of all. When the father (hauntingly played by John “Oh there’s a horse head in my bed” Marley) finally comes to his senses and says they have to deal with Andy before he hurts his sister, Carlin screams out “I don’t care about Cathy!” Such is her demented love for her son that she would rather her daughter died than anything happened to her little boy.

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All this culminates in a bitter little ending as (SPOILER) the now decomposing Andy is driven by his mother to a graveyard where, unable to cope with the world he has come back to, he tries to bury himself alive under a self made tombstone. (END OF SPOILER)

Its not a lot of fun. But then again it is…

What is most shocking about Dead of Night is that it is directed by Bob Clark who is best known for his Porkies movies and later less well known for the Baby Geniuses movies. Those all may have been silly sex comedies and weird children flicks but if you look at Clark’s early work he did three great horror movies in a row. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, this and Black Christmas, all in a couple of years. All three of them are good but Black Christmas is a legitimate classic and proto-slasher-before-Halloween to boot. I guess Clark must have been doing what many directors have done and used horror as a playground for honing his skills before moving onto more mainstream stuff. Its a shame he never returned to the genre (maybe Murder by Decree did a bit with its brutal Jack the Ripper slayings).

Dead of Night is, however, also a good testing ground for Clark’s later comedies, hence the fun. Every other character besides the Brooks family and Andy’s victims is clearly a comedic creation. There’s the local drunk who can barely speak, the stuttering chef who has all his sentences finished by his wife and the policeman who can’t stop fiddling with venetian blinds. All of them could easily be characters in Porkies movies and they are given so much time that its not hard to see where Clark’s heart was leaning.

Personally I think this is a tragedy. Who watches the Porkies movies now? And who ever watched Baby Geniuses, let alone Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2? Black Christmas has already been reevaluated as a classic. This surely can’t be far behind? Dead of Night is a clever and serious study of the effects of war on the individual and the effects of grief on the family, whilst at the same time it is a creepy and entertaining B-movie. It would have been good to see more like this from Clark. Still… you got to be happy with what we’ve got.

 

(Dead of Night is also know as Deathdream by the way. I’m going with what it said on the copy I saw but you got to love this action-centric poster below that doesn’t even look like a horror movie. And how it got a PG I will never know: its not particularly gory but the tone is so dark, even with comedy side characters.)

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Train to Busan 2016

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So despite the relentless flow of the undead which surely passed saturation point a long time ago, 2016 proved that the zombie genre is still in rude health. There’s The Walking Dead which still pulling in huge numbers on TV (even if everyone officially hates it) along with I, Zombie and Z Nation having their fans. On film, beyond all the not-even-good-enough-for-direct-to-Netflix nonsense we’ve already had one out and out classic in The Girl With All The Gifts this year and now we have Train to Busan.

Train To Busan is not, it has to be said, in the same league as The Girl With All The Gifts, but then its trying for something very different. The film it most resembles is World War Z, which is never a movie I thought anyone would be inspired by. But its as if Korean director Sang-ho Yeon saw the Brad Pitt starrer and thought, hey, I could do that but better by setting it all on a train. And that’s exactly what he’s done.

The set up is kept to a minimum: a useless father takes his young daughter onto a train destined for Busan to meet up with her mother. As the train pulls out of the station a zombie infestation takes over the city they leave behind and one zombie manages to make it aboard. Various carriages are overwhelmed by the zombies whilst others fight back. That is basically your lot. But boy does Yeon exploit his scenario well.

Zombie movies are at their best when they confine the action to one location, be it a farm house or a shopping mall or a military base. The train is a great location because not only does it keep everything tightly contained but it also means that the plot is always moving along and there is an ultimate destination for the characters and the story. Even in the mighty Dawn of the Dead it is unclear what our heroes will do at the end of the film when the shopping mall becomes untenable: flying off to who knows where in a helicopter feels almost an after thought. Here though there is somewhere for the survivors to get to and it gives the film great momentum, even if we’re not sure what awaits them once they get there. The train also is a perfect set up to give the survivors something to do other than block up windows and doors (although they do their fair share of that). For example some of the survivors are in carriage 9 whilst there loved ones are trapped in a toilet in 13, the rest of the survivors are up front in carriage 15. Its almost video game like in its simplicity but it gives the middle section of the movie lots to do as the guys battle their way through to get to their partners.

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The zombies themselves are a fun bunch. The World War Z influence is clear as they pour over each other to get to their next victim like a pile of killer ants. The influence is also there in that it is mostly a bloodless affair, maybe going for the PG-13 crowd, but despite the lack of gore they are still quite a threatening bunch. Maybe its because they are so relentless in their pursuit: when one zombie falls off the train and snaps his arms around the back of his neck he just gets up and carries on running after his victim despite now looking like a broken jigsaw puzzle. There’s also some great imagery: people trapped under a fallen carriage whilst zombies inside press against the window above them, hundreds of soldier zombies falling through broken gangway windows and smashing face first onto the train roof, a thick line of zombies clinging onto each other on the back back of the train, their bodies getting torn apart along the railway.

Of course all this excitement would be for nought if you didn’t care, fortunately the survivors, although thinly drawn, are a likeable bunch. You have the father who is some awful banker but learns the value of parenthood, the hard man with a heart, a terrified homeless man who becomes brave at the end and then there’s the prerequisite pregnant lady who.. okay, doesn’t get to do much more than be pregnant but is nice enough. Hmmm… alright maybe the women aren’t given that much to do except scream and be rescued by the men which isn’t so great.

Look despite its subtitles and coming from  Korea where cinema is often both intellectual and highly entertaining at the same time, Train to Busan is decidedly not high art. Nor is it trying to be. It is however a rollicking good bit of horror adventure which takes advantage of its set up brilliantly and gives us some of the best zombie action we’ve had in a while. I’m still waiting for the zombie genre to run out of steam but somehow that hasn’t happened yet, and this is yet more proof of that.

 

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The Girl With All The Gifts 2016

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The undead are dead they keep telling us. Yet every couple of years they rise from the grave to prove them wrong. The last really good zombie movie had to be The Battery and that was done with about two dollars and mostly set in the boot of a car. The Girl With All The Gifts is British so it is fair to assume that director Colm McCarthy didn’t have much more money to play with. But with a combination of big ideas, a great source novel and a terrific cast he’s only gone and made one of the best zombie movies ever and certainly one of the best British horror films of recent years.

Well I say zombie film, mostly because it has zombies in it, but the mood and feel of The Girl With All The Gifts is more like Day of the Triffids or Terry Nation’s Survivors. As in this is a typically British apocalypse and a pretty bleak film.

There aren’t many post apocalypse movies that aren’t bleak really, maybe Night of the Comet with teen heroines able to go shopping without the need for daddy’s credit card. In general, the apocalypse involves the fact that nearly everyone you know is dead, almost certainly horribly so. If you’re really unlucky they’re also trying to eat you. Everyone who isn’t dead has almost certainly turned into an arsehole and is either trying to start a new militaristic style world order or some weird sex haram in order to repopulate the world with more arseholes. The apocalypse is depressing man.

The Girl With All The Gifts at least goes for the former approach, being set in a military base where shady experiments on the undead in the hope of finding a cure are the order of the day. However the focus is not on that old story but on a young girl called Melanie. Upbeat and fiercely intelligent, Melanie lives inside a prison cell, her only relief the pictures of a cat and her lessons with the rest of the children and their teacher Helen Justinaeu, whom she loves deeply. Of course it quickly becomes apparent that all these children are zombie children who will eat Helen and the surrounding soldiers’ faces off if not strapped to their wheel chairs. The only hope for humanity is the work of Doctor Caldwell who is operating on the children to find out why they aren’t mindless cannibals, unlike the adult zombies,in the hope of finding an antidote. Obviously this “happy” life can’t last and soon everything goes to shit in a basket of crap.

What works so well here is that the film manages to capture all the detail of the book but mostly in visual form whilst, and not feeling the needed to be be a three hour behemoth that so many adaptations seem to suffer from nowadays. The entire dynamic between Melanie, Helen and the army sergeant, Parks, is summed up in a moment as Helen strokes the girl’s hair, the two females emotion in the moment and the military man’s horror at the intimacy between a human and what he sees as a monster. The opening section of the book set inside the camp is pretty long but the film wisely trims this down to a fairly short opening act. This is mostly accomplished by keeping the story focused on Melanie’s perspective: there may be terrible events going on outside the camp but we only see what Melanie sees. The upshot of this is when we are suddenly thrown into an epic zombie battle we’re really not expecting it. Add in the fact that most of it is done in one long take and you really get the feeling that McCarthy is just showing off.

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This visual flair and the tight script are complemented by the superb acting. I’m not sure Paddy Considine has ever given a poor performance in his life and here he adds depth to Parks that I never noticed in the book. Same too as the villainous Doctor Caldwell. She may be the standard crazy scientist but Close makes you feel that her cold approach to child mutulation has a calculated logical reason behind it. She has rejected her own conscience and morality for the survival of humankind. I don’t need to talk about Gemma Arterton by now do I? She’s fantastic as always. The only bum note to her role isn’t even related to what she does. Early on a couple of soldiers are discussing her role as the children’s teacher and on of them says “yeah, but she’s well fit.” Ugh. I guess soldiers may well talk like that but it just seemed to jar with both what everyone is trying to do with the female characters in the film and Arterton’s in particular. The female roles presented here are not defined by their sexuality, their looks or in relation to the male characters. There’s even a scene where four female characters have an angry confrontation, passing the Bechdel test with flying colours, so why we had to have someone pointing out how fit Aterton is is beyond me.

Anyway, none of these great performances would have made the slightest difference if the girl playing Melanie hadn’t been up to scratch. Fortunately newcomer Sennia Nanua makes most experienced actors seems like amateurs with all the screen presence of a season professional whilst, at the same time, still acting like a child. Between moments of horror she has some beautiful quiet moments. For example when she is slumped in ecstasy from consuming flesh, or feelings of wonder like when she is strapped to the top of a tank, staring in slack jawed amazement at the beautiful world around her. You’d think that Nanua probably got a lot of help from the rest of the cast, but Arterton says that she came on set quite capable already. Let’s hope she gets more good roles in the future.

So a really good British zombie movie then. Who’ve thought it. It’s one of a very small exclusive club containing 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and Plague of the Zombies… And probably the best of the bunch.

 

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